SEC: Missouri Tigers

The pretty boys got their turn on Wednesday as Georgia running back Nick Chubb headlined the SEC's top skill-position players heading into the 2015 season.

But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Todd Bennett/Getty ImagesMissouri center Evan Boehm has been providing a lift to the Tigers for years.

You don't see their faces unless something is wrong and their stats aren't kept in any public file, but the big uglies doing battle in the trenches are really the driving force to national championships.

With that said, here’s our early look at the SEC’s top offensive linemen heading into the 2015 season. They’re listed alphabetically:

Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU, Sr.: He thought about leaving and said it was "back and forth for a while" where one day he was going to declare for the NFL draft and another day he was coming back to LSU. And much to Les Miles' joy, it ended up being the latter. Now the Tigers have the Coaches All-SEC first-team selection to build around, although this year he'll slide from guard to tackle.

Evan Boehm, C, Missouri, Sr.: Tired of Boehm yet? It would be hard to blame you seeing as he already has started 40 consecutive games in his career. Surely there are a few flustered defensive linemen in the SEC who are ready to see him go by now. But Missouri's coaching staff is on the other end of that spectrum, lucky to have a center with so much experience to lean on.

Denver Kirkland, OT, Arkansas, Jr.: Shifting the junior from guard to tackle this spring could pay huge dividends for him and the Razorbacks. It not only gets him in better position for the NFL draft, but it provides quarterback Brandon Allen a 6-foot-5, 337-pound upperclassman to protect his blind side. Alongside Sebastian Tretola at left guard, look for coach Bret Bielema to play a lot of left-handed football this season.

Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Soph.: Some freshmen take time to get acclimated to the college game. But Robinson is not some freshmen. The former five-star prospect played from Day 1 at Alabama, starting all 14 games last year. And even more impressively, he was one of the Crimson Tide's most consistent linemen, leading the team in knockdown blocks while allowing just three sacks all season.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, Jr.: Think of Tunsil as Robinson, only a year older and a year closer to making a boatload of money in the NFL draft. He, too, saw the field as a true freshman, starting nine games while earning All-SEC Second Team honors. As a sophomore, he did more of the same, starting 11 games and earning a spot on the Coaches All-SEC squad. A broken leg he suffered in the Peach Bowl soured the season, but he's expected to be back in the starting lineup come Week 1.

Five more to watch:

SEC morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25

It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!

Tweet of the day

Attrition hit the SEC hard this offseason, for some more than others, but every school has a player moving on that left a mark, a player that can't easily be replaced. So we asked the question, which player will be missed most on every SEC team? And more importantly, how does that team plan to fill the void left behind?

First up in the two-part series is a look at the SEC East.

Florida: DE Dante Fowler Jr.
New defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will have his hands full trying to replace Fowler. The All-SEC star led the Gators last year in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (8.5), and it's going to take more than one player to replace that type of production. As Florida moves to a more traditional 4-3 scheme under Collins, defensive ends Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. will be responsible for getting to the quarterback. The two combined for 10 sacks last season. Five-star CeCe Jefferson is another name to watch, but he won't arrive on campus until the summer.

[+] EnlargeAlvin Dupree
AP Photo/Wade PayneHow will Kentucky fill the void at defensive end with Alvin "Bud" Dupree out of the mix in 2015?

Georgia: C David Andrews
Don't get me wrong. Running back Todd Gurley will be missed. But Georgia has Nick Chubb, one of the nation's top rushers, coming back and that should help ease the pain of losing Gurley. But losing Andrews hurts. He played in 50 games during his UGA career and started every game the past three seasons. It will look a little different with somebody else snapping the ball, but Mark Richt has already tabbed Hunter Long and Isaiah Wynn as the two main contenders to win the job this spring. Long has the experience, but Wynn has more upside. Take your pick.

Kentucky: DE/LB Alvin "Bud" Dupree
There wasn't a better ambassador for Kentucky football over the past couple years than Dupree. And to think, he never even got to play in a bowl game. Now he's taking his game to the next level, and it's up to former ESPN 300 recruit Jason Hatcher to fill the void. Hatcher played some last season, finishing fourth on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss, but how will he fare as an every-down player? The Wildcats need him to be the elite pass-rusher they recruited out of high school if they want to take that next step and reach a bowl game.

Missouri: DE Shane Ray
Really, this could go to Ray or teammate Markus Golden. They formed the top defensive end duo in the SEC last season and played a major role in getting Missouri back to the SEC title game. With both moving on, who's next in line at D-Line Zou? Redshirt freshmen Marcus Loud and Charles Harris are the two most viable candidates, as the coaches are high on both, but junior-to-be Rickey Hatley will also be in the mix as will five-star recruit Terry Beckner Jr. when he enrolls this summer. Though at 6-foot-4, 298 pounds, Beckner is better suited to play inside.

South Carolina: QB Dylan Thompson
It was a disappointing season for South Carolina, but Thompson, in his first full year as the starter, led the SEC in passing with 3,564 yards. Coach Steve Spurrier probably wishes Thompson had one more year of eligibility. But instead the Head Ball Coach has to find a new quarterback this spring. Connor Mitch served as the primary backup last season and looks to be the early favorite to win the job, but he's no lock. Perry Orth and Michael Scarnecchia are competing this spring, and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez will have a say when he arrives this summer.

Tennessee: CB Justin Coleman
With more and more teams going to spread offenses, the nickel cornerback has become a valuable asset to SEC defenses. Coleman was a perfect example. As a senior, he led the team with four interceptions. Now Tennessee, who could have one of the top secondaries in the conference, has to find a new nickel corner. Rashaan Gaulden impressed as a freshman on special teams and could be a perfect fit with his size and instincts, but juniors Devaun Swafford and Malik Foreman will also get a look. Swafford played there in 2013.

Vanderbilt: LB Kyle Woestmann
Learning a new defense is not easy, let alone a new position. Just ask Woestmann, who moved from defensive end to linebacker last spring. But he was a gamer. He did it, no questions asked. The only problem now is that Woestmann has moved on. That means it's up to the likes of Stephen Weatherly and Jonathan Wynn to fill the void at outside linebacker. The good news is that both Weatherly and Wynn are already familiar with the position. In fact, Weatherly led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss while Wynn finished with 13 tackles and a sack.

It didn't turn out how I thought it would. Then again, it never does when it comes to NCAA tournament time, so why should my fictional SEC football bracket be any different?

In what's become an annual tradition on the blog, Edward Aschoff and I seeded all 14 SEC teams to play out our very own spring tournament. Aschoff published his bracket earlier today, so now it's time for me to get in on the action.

It was a painstaking process -- filling out my 64-team bracket for the actual NCAA tournament was easier -- but I eventually got the seeding down and let the matchups dictate the rest.

I had upsets by NC State, UAB and Georgia State on my mind, so it's no coincidence that the underdog came out on top a few times.

Note: Since this tournament is based on the spring, injuries are taken into account.

  1. Georgia Bulldogs
  2. Auburn Tigers
  3. Alabama Crimson Tide
  4. Tennessee Volunteers
  5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
  6. Arkansas Razorbacks
  7. Ole Miss Rebels
  8. Missouri Tigers
  9. LSU Tigers
  10. Texas A&M Aggies
  11. Florida Gators
  12. South Carolina Gamecocks
  13. Kentucky Wildcats
  14. Vanderbilt Commodores
[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsVolunteers QB Joshua Dobbs has a bounty of talented pass-catchers to throw to in 2015.


In Memphis, Tennessee

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: Who's Nick Saban's quarterback? Who cares? With one of the best D-lines in college football and an O-line that should come together nicely, Alabama has the right ingredients to control games where it counts most: in the trenches. The Commodores are better than in 2014 and they're benefitted by Alabama being without starting cornerback Cyrus Jones and starting linebacker Denzel Devall, but in the end they don't stand a chance. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Florida: Losing Alex Collins for the first round due to an appendectomy hurts, but Jonathan Williams is more than capable of carrying Arkansas' offense. And with an even bigger and better offensive line, the Hogs impose their will on the Gators, who are still learning the ropes under new coach Jim McElwain. Winner: Arkansas

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Butch Jones' Vols might be a year away from competing for a national title, but the SEC East is another story. With a slew of talented pass-catchers (Marquez North, Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf) and a running back that's a safe bet to reach 1,000 yards (Jalen Hurd), quarterback Josh Dobbs orchestrates an offense that leaves Kentucky feeling dizzy. Winner: Tennessee

No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier crumpled up his 2014 defense and threw it in the trash, bringing in a new co-coordinator and a number of junior college transfers. But it won't be enough to stop the SEC's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott, who wills the Bulldogs to a first-round win. Winner: Mississippi State

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense doesn't need to be the best in the conference to win games. It takes some time, but John Chavis coaxes marginal improvement out of that side of the ball, enough that Kyle Allen and the high-flying offense earn the upset over the Rebs. Winner: Texas A&M

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 LSU: This is a bad matchup for Missouri, which should find itself in the thick of the SEC East race yet again in 2015. But it hits a buzzsaw as Leonard Fournette negates its pass-rush by running right at it and its QB struggles by throwing too many risky passes into LSU's opportunistic secondary. Winner: LSU


In Charlotte, North Carolina

No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU: All the wins and all the NFL-level talent don't mean much when put up against Georgia's nine-year drought of failing to win an SEC title game. Losing the big game has become all too familiar, whether you look at a loss to Georgia Tech last season or go further back to a four-point loss to Alabama in 2012. And in this matchup, it will be more of the same as Nick Chubb's 200 yards isn't enough. Fournette breaks the century mark rushing, Travin Dural hits a few long-balls over the top of the defense and a field goal in overtime sends LSU to the semifinals. Winner: LSU

In Orlando, Florida

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Mississippi State: You can't give a team like Tennessee an inch, because when they start believing and gaining confidence in themselves, they're scary. Mississippi State will learn that lesson the hard way as its defense struggles and its quarterback is dinged up early, putting it in a hole it can never quite come out of. Winner: Tennessee

In Houston

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn QB Jeremy Johnson is sure to surpass his 436 total yards passing from last season.

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Change out the light bulbs in the scoreboard before we get this one started. It's going to be a barn-burner. Neither team plays much defense and in the end, it's Auburn's balance on offense that tips the scales in the Tigers' favor as Jeremy Johnson throws for 300 yards and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas team up for 200 yards on the ground. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Remember what I said about who the QB is, not mattering for Alabama? Scratch that. In a close game it will. Arkansas runs the ball to control the tempo, keeps it a low-scoring affair and gets a late interception to sub out last season's one-point loss for this year's one-point win. Winner: Arkansas


In Arlington, Texas

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: This is the game where Will Muschamp earns his paycheck, stacking the Auburn defense against the run and forcing LSU to be one-dimensional. Brandon Harris is pulled in favor of Anthony Jennings early, but it makes no difference. Auburn's offense struggles to less than 300 yards, but wins the turnover battle to advance. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Ground-and-pound works, but only if you have the defense to back it up. And as it turns out, Arkansas doesn't against Tennessee. The Vols jump out to a two-touchdown lead in their home state and the Razorbacks don't have the firepower in the passing game to claw their way back, falling just short of a Cinderella season. Winner: Tennessee


In Atlanta

No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The Tigers have been on the big stage before and the Vols have not, and that's no small matter. So while Tennessee is able to score quickly against Auburn and jump out to another double-digit lead, it's not enough. Jones' offense goes stale in the second half while Gus Malzahn's uptempo attack gets hot, demoralizing the young Vols with a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to win. Winner: Auburn

The NCAA tournament has hit the SEC, even if the conference just has one team to root for in the Big Dance.

But we here at the SEC blog are all about the madness and wanted to continue a fun tradition that gives us our own fictional March tournament. Today, we are unveiling our SEC football brackets in honor of this week's Sweet 16.

Esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s).

The first College Football Playoff did a great job of exciting the masses, but imagine if we had even more teams. I'll show off my seedings and bracket first, and Alex will post his later.

After letting my cat Meeko take over most of the responsibility with this whole thing, here are my seeds for all 14 teams:

  1. Auburn
  2. Georgia
  3. Alabama
  4. Ole Miss
  5. Arkansas
  6. Tennessee
  7. LSU
  8. Texas A&M
  9. Missouri
  10. Mississippi State
  11. South Carolina
  12. Florida
  13. Kentucky
  14. Vanderbilt


In Memphis, Tennessee

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama RB Derrick Henry looks to build on a promising sophomore season in which he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: This year's NCAA tournament saw two 14 seeds topple No. 3 seeds. That ain't happening in our bracket. Both teams are trying to figure things out at quarterback, but Alabama just has too much talent all around. Bama running back Derrick Henry will make quick work of Vandy's defense, giving OC Lane Kiffin the option to play every QB the Crimson Tide has. Winner: Alabama

No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 South Carolina: The Vols are a trendy pick in the SEC East this year, and it makes sense when you realize Tennessee brings back 18 starters. South Carolina was a mess on defense last year and has its own quarterback battle to worry about. The Vols have rising star Josh Dobbs at QB and stud running back Jalen Hurd to lead the offense. The Gamecocks will have flashbacks of that horrendous fourth quarter against the Vols last fall. Winner: Tennessee

In Kansas City, Missouri

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Shocker, another SEC team with a quarterback issues, but we expect Chad Kelly to get most of the snaps in his game. Not having Laquon Treadwell (leg) will take a major part of the passing game away, but Cody Core will make a couple of big plays on Kentucky's defense, which will open things up for Jaylen Walton to slice up Kentucky's rebuilt defensive line. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Florida: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. This has been such a fun pick to make in the NCAA tournament, but like this year's Big Dance, we'll have no 12-seed waltzing into the second round. Florida's offense is under construction, and even with Alex Collins recovering from an appendectomy, Johnathan Williams will tire out Florida's front seven, and the Hogs will force a couple of turnovers. Winner: Arkansas

In Jacksonville, Florida

No. 7 LSU vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: These aren't the same Bulldogs who pulled off an upset in Death Valley last year. However, LSU doesn't have the best quarterback situation. I think Brandon Harris gets the majority of the snaps and Leonard Fournette wears down the Bulldogs' line, but in the tournament you need a solid point guard, and that's where quarterback Dak Prescott comes in. LSU's lack of a pass rush gives Prescott the time he needs to lead a game-winning drive. Winner: Mississippi State

No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: We get a little Big 12 feel with this game. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but don't have elite talent at defensive end this spring, and quarterback Maty Mauk has a completely rebuilt receiving corps to work with. The Aggies got a major defensive upgrade with the hiring of John Chavis, and he'll be the difference. Quarterback Kyle Allen will make some plays, and we'll finally see a defensive stand by the Aggies! Winners: Texas A&M


In Charlotte, North Carolina

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWill Muschamp takes over an Auburn passing defense that was ranked 86th in yards per game allowed last season.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: Oh baby, we have a battle of new defensive coordinators. Chavis vs. Will Muschamp. This one should be one of the more exciting games of the tournament, but the Tigers will have a more balanced offense with Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas beating down that A&M front and quarterback Jeremy Johnson making plays on the Aggies' secondary. Winner: Auburn

In Orlando, Florida

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: Georgia will start the game with Brice Ramsey at quarterback, but will use Jacob Park in special packages. But does it really matter? With Mississippi State trying to figure some things out up front, running back Nick Chubb will have a field day with that defense. Georgia won't need to throw much with Chubb going to work and the defense forcing key turnovers. Winner: Georgia

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Arkansas: Last year's game didn't go so well for the Rebels, and they'll have another tough go down in H-Town. With Ole Miss' defensive line clamping down on the Hogs' running game, Arkansas will have to get more out of Brandon Allen. This is where we see the maturation of Allen's game inside new offensive coordinator Dan Enos' more spread-out passing offense. Winner: Arkansas

In New Orleans

No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Tennessee: The Vols haven't beaten Alabama since 2006, but the Tide will have to settle on a quarterback in this game. I'm going with Jake Coker, who will have his hands full with pass-rusher Derek Barnett and one of the SEC's best secondary duos in Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton. A Dobbs to Marquez North touchdown late is the difference in Tennessee's upset win. Winner: Tennessee


In Arlington, Texas

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 5 Arkansas: This could be the best game of the bunch: Auburn's potent uptempo offense vs. Arkansas' downhill, sledgehammer approach. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, and the key matchup to watch is Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson against Arkansas LT Denver Kirkland, who just made the position switch this spring. Lawson is coming back from an ACL injury, but he's up to speed. Auburn's line will hold Arkansas' rushing attack back -- even with the return of Collins -- but Auburn's ability to force turnovers will be the difference. Winner: Auburn

In Nashville, Tennessee

No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 6 Tennessee: A great SEC East rivalry makes it to the Final Four, and Georgia's questions at quarterback remain. This will be the battle of pass-rushers, with Barnett trying to frustrate the Dawgs' backfield, and Georgia's trio of Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter hunting Dobbs. The Dawgs will get to Dobbs a few times, but having four reliable receivers in the fold will push Tennessee's offense. Dobbs works some fourth-quarter magic to pull another upset. Winner: Tennessee


In Atlanta

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 6 Tennessee: Will time run out on our Creamsicle-colored Cinderella? To this point, Dobbs has been exceptional through the Vols' run, but Auburn's defense is getting more comfortable with Muschamp's scheme and teachings. Running the football will be a major advantage for Auburn with that pace and space. That's where the Tigers put it away. With Robinson and Thomas wearing down Tennessee's line, Johnson makes plays with freak receiver Duke Williams, bringing an SEC title back to the Plains. Winner: Auburn

Offseason spotlight: Missouri

March, 20, 2015
Mar 20

Back-to-back SEC Eastern Division titles should put a target squarely on Missouri's back in 2015. The Tigers won't be handed the division this season. Not with more questions this season than the past two seasons combined. For Mizzou to continue its domination of the East, the most important position on the field has to be much better this season. (Other posts in the Offseason Spotlight series.)

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMaty Mauk struggled in SEC play last season, completing just 48.9 percent of his passes.

Spotlight: Maty Mauk, quarterback, 6 feet, 200 pounds, redshirt junior

2014 summary: Mauk finished the season seventh in the SEC in passing yards per game (189.1) and total passing yards (2,648). He also threw 25 touchdown passes to 13 interceptions and ran for 373 yards and two more scores. Mauk struggled in SEC play last season, averaging just 174.8 yards per game, throwing nine touchdowns with seven interceptions, and completing just 48.9 percent of his passes.

The skinny: Despite winning the East the past two seasons, the Tigers still have a hill to climb in the respect department. Honestly, the respect part puzzles me, but SEC purists are set in their ways. However, there are valid reasons not to expect Mizzou to walk away with a third straight SEC East crown. Those elite pass-rushers the Tigers had for two years are gone, a left tackle must be found, and there is no quality experience at wide receiver. Oh, and Mauk must be better in 2015. The Mauk we saw filling in for an injured James Franklin in 2013 just wasn't there for most of the 2014 season. Early on, it looked as if Mauk hadn't missed a beat, but once he reached conference play, his composure was often lost. Completing less than 50 percent of your passes in league play just isn't good enough. Now, Mauk was bailed out by a tremendous defense, which the Tigers rode into Atlanta, but with edge rushers Shane Ray and Markus Golden (42.5 tackles for loss and 24.5 sacks combined) gone, Mizzou's defense takes a major hit in 2015. Also, top receivers Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, and Darius White are gone. That leaves Mauk with a lot of unproven talent to work with this spring and beyond. I'm not saying he can't get back to where he was in 2013, but it's going to take a lot when you consider the holes around him. Running back Russell Hansbrough is a great weapon for Mauk, but a lot of Mizzou's success in 2015 will rest on Mauk's shoulders. The passing game just has to be better in order to take some pressure off Hansbrough and the defense. Mauk has to be more composed when things break down. He has to make better decisions with the ball. He has to be more of a leader and take more command in the huddle. Mauk has been here before and succeeded, and he has the talent and the moxie to be one of the league's best.

SEC morning links

March, 16, 2015
Mar 16

It’s March, and we all know what that means. It’s time for the Big Dance. Five teams from the SEC made this year’s field including an undefeated Kentucky squad looking to make history. For those filling out brackets at home, my early Final Four picks are those Wildcats along with Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa State. But that’s likely to change over the next three days. Since we focus mostly on football here, I thought it would be interesting to see what seed each SEC football team would have gotten had there been a 68-team tournament. This is according to the Massey composite rankings and comes as of Dec. 6, 2014, before the bowl games.

1: Alabama
2: Ole Miss, Mississippi State
3: Georgia, Auburn
5: Missouri, LSU
7: Arkansas
8: Texas A&M
9: Florida
10: Tennessee
12: South Carolina
16: Kentucky (play-in game)

Assuming the SEC wouldn’t play each other in the first round, some of the better early-round matchups would have included Arkansas (7) versus Duke (10) or Texas A&M (8) versus Notre Dame (9). And how about Alabama and Penn State meeting up in a potential 1-16 matchup?

Around the SEC

Tweet of the day

I for one am very happy to see a playoff at the FBS level. More games, more drama, more fun.

Yes, I'd like to see more games, but that's for another day.

For now, the talk is on four games and what -- if anything -- can be done around those four games to make the College Football Playoff better. All week, esteemed colleague Heather Dinich has been diving deeper into the playoff, getting thoughts and opinions from various voices around college football. If you haven't read any of her pieces, you should because they're very insightful.

[+] Enlarge2009 Alabama
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe SEC championship game is too important to too many ever to go away.
On Wednesday, she tackled the subject of conference championship games and how they inevitably cut both ways for conferences. We certainly saw it last year with the Big 12 -- hello, Baylor and TCU -- and the Big Ten -- you're welcome Ohio State -- we've seen it in the past, and we'll likely see it for as long as postseason play is available in college football.

And while conference title games remain for leagues with at least 12 teams (get with it Big 12!), this does beg the question of whether conferences should consider or reconsider having league championships at the end of the regular season. As Dinich writes, the ACC and Big 12 have already petitioned the NCAA to loosen its restrictions on conference championship games, so maybe the consideration of change for some could be on the horizon.There's certainly a risk-reward factor that fluctuates depending on the conference. The Big 12 found out the hard way last year, but if things had worked out a little differently outside of the conference's own realm, the league would have looked great without a title game.

So should the SEC even entertain the thought of ever dumping its title game?

Uh, that notion should be met with an emphatic, no. Sorry, NO!

The SEC championship game means too much to the conference, it's too successful, and some might argue that it has become the second-biggest game in the country outside of the national championship game. If you look at the SEC's success during the BCS era, which included that run of seven straight national championships, the SEC title game has played a major part in the league's success.

Just look at 2006 and 2007. Florida's win over Arkansas in Atlanta in 2006 vaulted the No. 4 Gators past Michigan in the polls and into the BCS title game against Ohio State -- a game the Gators cruised in. A year later, 10-2 LSU beat No. 14 Tennessee in the title game to move from No. 7 to No. 2 and eventually faced -- and beat -- Ohio State in the national championship.

Now, both teams needed some help, but without the SEC championship, we probably aren't discussing either team.

Fourth-ranked Florida benefited from the SEC title game again in 2008 with a win over No. 1 Alabama to make it another national championship before Alabama reversed fates with the Gators a year later. (Although without an SEC title game, the Gators and Tide would probably have played each other in the national championship in 2009). And if either Georgia or Missouri had won in Atlanta in 2012 and 2013, respectively, those teams, especially Georgia, would have had a great argument for a spot in the eventual BCS national championship game.

Yes, the SEC has been hurt by the title game in the past -- 2001 with No. 2 Tennessee losing to LSU immediately comes to mind -- but the reward far outweighs the risk for the SEC. And even more now with the league failing to win the last two national championships.

The league might have been able to get away with its name and its brand a little more during its improbable title run, but going 0-2 in as many seasons will put even more emphasis on conference title games from the playoff committee. The SEC likely wouldn't lose a ton of points in the committee's mind without a conference championship, but it certainly doesn't lose any with one.

It's better safe than sorry for the SEC, and the league has benefited too much from creating the conference championship. While other conferences contemplate both sides, the SEC should stick to what has helped it be so successful for more than a decade.
The 2014 season marked only the third time since 2000 that the SEC champion didn't have at least one defensive lineman who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.

It's a reminder that you better have difference-makers up front defensively if you're going to win a championship in this league.

The game has changed, for sure. Teams are scoring more points, and offenses are playing faster than ever before. The defensive numbers have suffered as a result, even in the SEC where defense was once king.

That doesn't diminish the importance of having dominant defensive linemen and dynamic finishers off the edge who can rush the quarterback. The SEC has had more of those players historically than any other conference, and it's the chief reason the SEC has won eight of the past 12 national championships.

So if you're looking for a position that will define the SEC in 2015, look no further than defensive line and pass-rusher.

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezTexas A&M freshman Myles Garrett finished second in the SEC with 11.5 sacks.
Alabama's Nick Saban has been a head coach in both the SEC and Big Ten and scouted players from all conferences while coaching the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

In his mind, one of the things that separates the SEC from other leagues is the "quality of the pass-rushers and the athleticism of the up-front people on defense."

In the past three drafts, 13 defensive linemen/pass-rushers from the SEC have been selected in the top two rounds. Florida's Dante Fowler and Missouri's Shane Ray are projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. to go in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.

More are on the way, too, especially when you look at the collection of defensive line talent that has already proven itself in the SEC and some of the young guns set to arrive this summer.

Two of the returning sack leaders in the SEC were both true freshmen a year ago.

Texas A&M's Myles Garrett was second in the league to Ray with 11.5 sacks as a freshman, and freshman Tennessee's Derek Barnett was just a few spots behind with 10 sacks. The amazing thing is that neither player was an early enrollee last year. They both reported in the summer without the benefit of spring practice and immediately started putting up huge numbers.

Already, first-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis is a believer, and he has been around his share of big-time defensive linemen.

"In our system, we want to be good at defensive end, and it didn't take us long to figure out that we have some pretty good talent there," Chavis said.

The Vols were thrilled to get Barnett a year ago and knew he was an excellent prospect, but coach Butch Jones had no idea the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett would have the impact he did as a freshman. His 18 tackles for loss in SEC games led all players, and nobody else in the league had more than 12.

"He just took off and kept getting better," Jones said. "The best thing about him is that he's nowhere near as good as he's going to be."

Barnett is recovering from shoulder surgery and won't participate in spring drills. The same goes for senior Curt Maggitt, who finished with 11 sacks last season and gives the Vols the best returning sack tandem in the league. The 6-3, 251-pound Maggitt splits his time between outside linebacker and defensive end, but is at his best as an edge rusher.

Speaking of pass-rushers, Auburn's Carl Lawson appears to be fully recovered after missing last season with a torn ACL. He was a Freshman All-American two years ago and is the kind of disrupter up front that first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp needs if he's going to retool a defense that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games last season.

If you're looking for the SEC team with the deepest defensive line, that would be Alabama. A'Shawn Robinson can play nose or end in the Tide's 3-4 set and played his best football down the stretch a year ago. His junior season should be his best yet.

Junior end Jonathan Allen is another one on that Alabama defensive front with star potential. He had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, including 5.5 sacks, and may be ready to explode in 2015.

The same goes for Ole Miss tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who didn't have great numbers a year ago. But he's such a physical and athletic presence inside that his numbers don't begin to tell you what kind of player he is. Just turn on the tape and watch him collapse the pocket.

Prior to last season, an NFL scout suggested that no defensive lineman in the SEC had a better combination of size and talent than Mississippi State tackle Chris Jones, who says he's still an end at heart. The 6-5, 308-pound Jones might want to take a cue from Nkemdiche and fully embrace the move to tackle, because if he does, it's scary how good he can be.

Is it possible to assess the Year of the Defensive Lineman in the SEC without mentioning LSU? The Tigers have had eight defensive linemen drafted over the past four years, and that number will grow when Danielle Hunter hears his name called two months from now.

Next up in that pipeline is sophomore tackle Davon Godchaux, who led all LSU interior linemen with 42 total tackles last season as a true freshman. Godchaux didn't play his senior season of high school after injuring his knee. He has already grabbed first-year coordinator Kevin Steele's attention.

Georgia, which runs a 3-4 system under Jeremy Pruitt, is loaded with talent at outside linebacker. Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are the veterans, but don't be surprised if sophomore Lorenzo Carter develops into the most feared pass-rusher on the team. He had 4.5 sacks as a true freshman.

And speaking of young guys, several incoming true freshmen are poised to make immediate impacts in 2015.

Among them: Byron Cowart at Auburn, Terry Beckner Jr. at Missouri, Trenton Thompson at Georgia, Daylon Mack at Texas A&M, CeCe Jefferson at Florida and Kahlil McKenzie at Tennessee.

There are sure to be more, too.

This is still a line-of-scrimmage league, and the talent on the defensive front in 2015 will be hard to miss.

SEC morning links

March, 12, 2015
Mar 12
1. I think all of us assume the Alabama quarterback job will come down to Jake Coker versus the young trio of former ESPN 300 signal callers already on campus. But have we forgotten about Alec Morris, the one who’s been around the longest? Blake Sims was the veteran last year, and he wound up winning the job. And speaking of Sims, the former Crimson Tide star believes Morris is "going to factor big-time" in the much-anticipated position battle. We’ll all get our first look this Friday when Alabama opens spring practice, and though it will be front and center, the quarterback competition isn’t the only storyline headed into practice. There are plenty of other question marks facing the defending SEC champs this spring.

2. You probably don’t know every single athletic director in the SEC. I’m not even sure I do. But that doesn’t take away from how important they are to a football program. And that is why Missouri fans have to be ecstatic to hear Gary Pinkel’s endorsement for Mack Rhoades, the school’s new athletic director, especially considering Pinkel has had the same boss since he was hired in 2001. The two have already spoken, and you can bet the south end zone improvements at Faurot Field were brought up in conversation. For more on Rhoades and what he brings to Missouri, be sure to read this column from Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It sure sounds like they found the right man for the job in Columbia.

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One thing's for sure in the SEC: It is definitely not the Year of the Quarterback, but it will be the Year of Finding the Quarterback.

At least five teams -- Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina -- will be breaking in new quarterbacks, while three others -- Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt -- could potentially have new signal-callers under center thanks to intriguing quarterback battles. Then, you have Arkansas and Missouri, which must have better play at quarterback if those teams are going to make championship runs in 2015.

Ten SEC teams have some sort of serious quarterback question, but there's good news for most: There are quality running backs to help carry the load. Those backfield bulls are back to help push when quarterbacks can't. There are safety nets all around the league that could help quarterbacks needing a boost this fall.

For instance, look at Georgia. The Bulldogs return a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, but for the second straight year will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. The difference in 2015 is that the Dawgs are dealing with both youth and inexperience. But whichever quarterback makes the final cut will have the pleasure of handing the off to Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Chubb, who might have been the SEC's best running back last year, rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry should alleviate the pressure on whichever new quarterback Alabama has under center next fall.
And he has friends. Fellow sophomore Sony Michel is back with his 410 yards and five touchdowns, while the hope is that veteran Keith Marshall will bounce back from another tough knee injury.

Turn your attention a little southwest of Athens, and you'll find an Alabama team wondering if Jake Coker can finally take over this team or if some youngster will be thrown in the fire. The good thing about that fire is that rising junior Derrick Henry is there to fan the flames. Despite being second in carries last year (172) Henry led Alabama with 990 rushing yards and had 11 touchdowns. Like Chubb, Henry is a freight train with his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame and track star speed. Couple that with the eventual return of home-run threat Kenyan Drake (leg) and some talented youngsters, like freshman Bo Scarbrough, and Alabama's next quarterback has quite the stable to work with and relieve some of the pressure.

Auburn is an interesting case because Nick Marshall is gone, but the more pass-savvy Jeremy Johnson is the runaway favorite at quarterback. Still, he's a new starter, and the Tigers lost SEC-leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne (1,608 yards). Sophomore Roc Thomas has loads of potential, and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson could be a star in the making. Auburn has owned the SEC's top rusher in each of Gus Malzahn's first two years as the Tigers' head coach so don't be shocked by another dominant running game.

For Arkansas and Missouri, it's about making sure their returning starting quarterbacks are, well, better. Brandon Allen (Arkansas) and Maty Mauk (Missouri) struggled mightily at times last year and were wildly inconsistent, as neither completed better than 56 percent of his passes and both failed to average even 190 yards per game. That's not even close to good enough if either one of these teams is going to make a run in 2015.

Arkansas returns the SEC's best rushing duo in Jonathan Williams (1,190) and Alex Collins (1,100), which definitely has to have Allen smiling. Mizzou will have quite a few new faces around Mauk, but Russell Hansbrough was one of the SEC's best running backs, registering 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers should go up with Marcus Murphy gone and with the likelihood that the Tigers will probably be a more run-oriented team early this fall.

Two other teams to keep an eye on are LSU and South Carolina. The Tigers have a very intriguing QB battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, and while LSU has to be exceedingly better at quarterback, having an older, wiser Leonard Fournette handling the rock will certainly help. Fournette didn't exactly explode onto the scene as quickly as everyone envisioned last year, but he finished with 1,034 yards and will return as a Heisman favorite. There's isn't a lot of experience behind him, but Fournette is built to be both an every-down rusher and a slasher.

South Carolina lost starting quarterback Dylan Thompson and starting running back Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds has 1,277 career rushing yards and should be Mr. Reliable for South Carolina's new starting quarterback, which will likely by redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch. Wilds isn't elite, but he's tough and a grinder.

Even Vanderblit, which has a log-jam battle at quarterback, has a solid running back in sophomore Ralph Webb, who ran for 907 yards last year, but has to improve on his four touchdowns and 4.3 yards per carry.

On paper, the SEC has enough wealth at running back to counter the newbies and uncertainty at quarterback. These guys aren't total cures, but their play will go a long way toward shoring up those uncertain passing games.

SEC morning links

March, 11, 2015
Mar 11
It was 70 degrees in Atlanta on Tuesday. Happy days certainly are here again!
Not a tweet of the day, but colleague David Ching's Instagram video of LSU's receivers showing off their fancy footwork is impressive:

Schedule: Missouri hits the field for its first spring practice at 4:30 p.m. ET today. The Tigers won’t practice during the school’s spring break (March 22-29) and practices will conclude on April 18 with the spring football game.

What’s new: There are a couple new faces on the defensive side of the ball. Barry Odom takes over as Mizzou’s new defensive coordinator, coming over from Memphis, where he spent the past three seasons. Odom is familiar with Columbia -- he was a linebacker at Mizzou from 1996-99 and spent nine years on Gary Pinkel’s coaching staff before going to Memphis in 2011. Odom replaces Dave Steckel, the former Mizzou defensive coordinator who is now the head coach at Missouri State. Joining Odom from Memphis is Ryan Walters, who will coach safeties for Mizzou. Walters was the cornerbacks coach under Odom at Memphis and played safety for Colorado from 2004-08.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk, Daeshon Hall
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsAfter showing some flashes in 2014, the Tigers will expect more from QB Maty Mauk this fall.
 New faces: The Tigers have two signees from February’s signing class that are already enrolled and will participate in spring football: offensive tackles Malik Cuellar and Tanner Owen. Cuellar, a transfer from City College of San Francisco, is a 6-foot-5, 300 pound three-star prospect who had offers from Arizona State, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech -- among others. Owen, a true freshman from Kearney (Missouri) High, is also a three-star prospect and checks in at 6-5, 275. He was the No. 17 prospect in the state of Missouri.

Question marks: How the defense looks and responds under Odom’s direction is one of the primary things to watch this spring. Steckel did a stellar job in his time leading the Tiger defense -- a position he held since 2008 -- but Odom shined at Memphis, taking that group from one of the worst defenses in the country upon his arrival to one of the top-30 nationally by time he left. Of primary concern is determining the successors at defensive end, where the Tigers enjoyed two years of outstanding pass-rush tandems -- Kony Ealy and Michael Sam in 2013; Markus Golden and Shane Ray in 2014. Among returners who saw significant playing time last year at the position (Charles Harris, Rickey Hatley, Marcus Loud) only one (Harris with one) started a game. Finding a new crop of receivers is a priority also after the Tigers graduated their three leading pass-catchers from a year ago (Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, Darius White). There isn’t much experience among the returners, so that group will have to grow up quickly.

Key battle: Mitch Morse is gone so the Tigers are looking for a new left tackle. Who will it be? There doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut successor to Morse at the position. Sophomore Nate Crawford was the backup on last year’s two-deep but has only appeared in one game. Malik Cuellar is an intriguing option with his size and athleticism. Could starting right tackle Taylor Chappell be an option? Spring should provide some clarity at the position, and it’ll be worth watching.

Breaking out: Last season, Marcus Murphy was a playmaker for the Tigers both at running back and in the return game. With him gone, there are carries to be had in the backfield after Russell Hansbrough. Keep an eye on Ish Witter, a 5-10 sophomore who could eat up some of those carries and has the potential to post some good numbers this season. As for Murphy’s return duties, keep an eye on Raymond Wingo, a redshirt freshman with speed.

Don’t forget about: Russell Hansbrough. The tailback led the Tigers with 1,084 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns last season and is back for his senior season. The 5-9, 190 Hansbrough had a few strong performances late in the year, rushing for 199 yards vs. Texas A&M, 91 vs. Arkansas and 114 vs. Minnesota in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.

All eyes on: Maty Mauk. After showing flashes of his potential as a freshman, Mauk’s sophomore campaign didn’t go as well as many envisioned. The Tigers were still able to win the SEC East, but certainly the dynamic quarterback wants to improve on the numbers he posted last season, which included a 53.4 percent completion rate and 13 interceptions. If Mauk can become more consistent, he has a chance to be great. Gary Pinkel said that he feels like when things get the toughest, Mauk performs the best. Keeping that performance at a high level with consistency is key to taking the next step and, in turn, helping the Tigers take the next step as an offense and as a team.

SEC morning links

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
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SEC morning links

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
A day after Auburn's Corey Grant burned up the track at Auburn's pro day, another former SEC player who didn't attend the NFL combine also helped his cause. Mississippi State's Matt Wells ran a 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash, the best of any player at the Bulldogs' pro day on Wednesday. State was one of three SEC schools to hold a pro day on Wednesday, along with Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Aggies' pro day lacked the fanfare of a year ago when Johnny Manziel worked out for scouts -- particularly with star tackle Cedric Ogbuehi sidelined by a knee injury -- but a dozen former A&M players still took advantage of the opportunity to show what they could do. Likewise, 16 former Razorbacks -- including All-SEC honorees Martrell Spaight and Trey Flowers -- showed off for scouts at Arkansas' workout on Wednesday afternoon.
  • Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
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